Translated by Mahdi from الشبكات الإجتماعية… أفيون المناضلين؟ على ‘إعلام المواطن’ أن يكثف روابطه خارج التغطية
“Hey you stupid facebook activist! Log out and come join us offline, on the ground if you dare!” This is how a member of a Moroccan NGO answered one of the most famous, so-called Moroccan “digital activists” in one of those long Facebook commenting discussions.
As an offline activist who decided to bring online the causes I am advocating for, I strongly believe that on-the-ground advocacy needs online support and mediation. But as far as I am concerned by the so called ‘digital activism’, my observations of these last couple of years of Web 2.0 usage among my limited–but quite diverse–networks put me on the opposite side of those who are fantasizing about ‘Twitter Revolutions’ and ‘YouTube transparency’.
Though there is no need to say how personal and biased my point of view is, I will try to support it with some examples, not to deny any hope of social media’s impact on activism in Morocco, but to argue that digital activism should come from offline on-the-ground activism; otherwise, it will stay a fictive activism that, instead of bringing people to concrete advocacy, will sequester them in a Don Quixote spiral of electronic struggles in the “most important political party in Morocco”.
1) Iranian elections, Egypt’s 06 April movement and online hopes
One year after the Iranian controversial elections, I have a large smile when I remember Mark Pfeifle -American former deputy and national security adviser for strategic communications and global outreach at the National Security Council from 2007 to 2009- suggesting a Nobel Peace Prize for Twitter. Iranian events were indeed the source for many fantasies of social media’s power; Hamid Tehrani, GVO’s Iran editor, estimates that there were fewer than 1000 active Twitter users in Iran during the elections, he moderates saying that “Twitter was important in publicizing what was happening, but its role was overemphasized” and “Some people did provide updates from Tehran, but many didn’t check out. When someone tweeted that there were 700,000 people demonstrating in front of a mosque, it turned out that only around 7,000 people showed up.” ThoughIranian events gave a lot of hope about the potential of the Web 2.0 in general, we should not then focus on the means–the technology–and forget the aim, and that is exactly what Tehrani is pointing out: “The west was focused not on the Iranian people but on the role of western technology.”
The other important online uprising we can call to mind before tackling the Moroccan case is the Egyptian 6 April movement, which is considered as the first trial for an Arab online movement moving on the ground, yet their movement impacted many political parties that rallied it. What we can learn from this experience is that social media is a threat to authoritarian regimes if and only if they go on the ground, as we can understand from Ahmed Naji. But does social media succeed in mobilization on the ground?
II) Moroccan online activism going to the ground
Mainly encouraged by the Facebook democratization–I remind the new Facebook users that in early years, an ‘email@example.com’ address was the passport to Zuckerberg’s web site–the online activism stated to experience taking people’s online thoughts to the ground, but till now no real efficiency is observed: the phenomenon can be analyzed through these examples:
1. The MALI movement for individual liberties:
Starting with a Facebook group, it tried first to organize a collective fast-breaking, just a few activists were at the meeting but as some reported; there were more police agents than activists. MALI tried another offline action last month: a demonstration against sexual harassment, again, very few activists and easy neutralization for police. Nevertheless, the MALI has succeeded in highlighting on a debate, which many avoided to start about individual freedoms.
2. The “All against the Prime Minister’s family” Movement:
Unlike the few members of the MALI’s facebook group–many of them just to insult the movement–this group was joined by some 20,000 Facebookers, it planned a demonstration in front of the parliament which was canceled without real explanation from the group members…We can maybe try to compare this with the failure of the Tunisian Ammar 404 campaign to go on the ground.
3. The demonstration against the Minister of Communication:
This last example on the ground was followed on Facebook, but at the event, some 11 or a little more people were present as we see in this video, the same video that was seen for 28000 times, the video of the minister which is the origin of this uprising was seen about 300,000 times.
4) “No mobile phone day” protest against call costs:
It is hard to evaluate the impact in this case as only phone companies know how many people really switched off their phones in May the 30th as this campaign invited them to do. This uprising had around 35,000 Facebook supporters, a letter to the Minister Reda Chami, and to the ANRT (Telecom Regulation National Agency ) will be written in collaboration with some consumers associations, and a « week without charging phone credits » is planned to be the next step.
III) Moroccan off line activism going on line via social media:
With a quite weak visibility, some classical agents of activism (NGOs, political parties, Islamist movements, etc…) are joining social media, mainly Facebook. In Twitter, till now only two political parties have an account, followed by fewer than 200 users each, and very few politicians have an account, we are still far from the four million followers of Obama, the one million two hundred thousand for Queen Rania or the five hundred thousand followers of Hugo Chavez.
NGOs are also trying to make their way through social media, yet I think it is too early to evaluate the situation. But from my point of view, NGOs going online should have more success than pure online-built activism trying to do it the opposite way (as described in previous paragraph). Activism should come from off line and try to use social media for up rising. From a very personal experience: in the earth day tree planting operation in Ajdir northern Morocco, around 500 people were present in the operation, almost all of them knew about it via street and door to door, nearly no one was coming in answer to the different calls online, which prove how beginner we still are in uprising on the web.
Also to note that in Morocco, other efficient Tools such as SMS up rising are just unknown!
And a last point to note, we can blame NGOs and some political parties for using massively internal mailing lists which often turn to a messy confused exchange, mixing pure internal information and sympathizers informing and reducing the efficiency of both, instead of having a web site with an external newsletter and a ‘clean’ internal mailing lists.
IV) Graph theory on social networks: activists are orbiting in disconnected parallel worlds in social media… Neither the leftist sees the Adlist(a) networks nor the Istiqlalians(b) exchange with the Nahjists(c)!
a: From ‘Al Adl wal Ihssane’ an islamist movement with political agenda but not a political party.
b: Istiqlal party : conservative party, actual prime minister’s party.
c: Annahjaddimoucrati : the democratic way, left wings, does not participate in the elections
Intuition is essential in mathematics; this part of the essay presents personal intuitions inspired from graph theory and “small world network” about how information spread trough social networks. This is though the most biased paragraph, as I am not a mathematician, my basic knowledge of topology and graph theory might lead me to wrong intuitions, moreover I had neither the time to look on specialized literature nor the access to sources that can offer serious scientific works on social networks during my writing period. I hope the example presented below can lead to some first understanding, preliminary ideas or just curiosity, and i would be happy if some comments provide deeper works in this field.
When defending romanticist positions on social media’s power, many forget that networks such as Facebook can be in some extreme cases real disconnecting tools!
Let us consider the “Friend Wheel” above, this is a Facebook application that shows you your Facebook ‘friends’ and the links between them. I distinguished in this example two parts CC A, and CC B (Connected Component see: University of Berkley/Vazirani for ‘strong connected component’) and CC-B/o which is a subpart of CC-B and finally the two yellow lines I added for a more general case.
CC-A can be seen as the group of your friends with whom you just exchange pure personal informations, they can be colleagues, school mates, family, etc.
CC-B can represent the group with whom you are “politically linked” (supposed that you have a Facebook profile where you have important political exchanges), the main part of CC-B might represent your affinity group of contacts who are strongly linked to each others, then the CC-B/o are some people from a different political view but who are so to say ‘meeting your side’, and finally, the two yellow lines could be two of your friends who are now sympathizers or activists of a diametrical opposite political view or ideology (two Salafist friends from childhood of a very liberal, to make it concrete).
Now that we made clear what these groups might represent, we wonder then how information spread through one’s connected component. As one should have noticed, when you have some hundreds of Facebook friends, you do not see all their updates in your timeline like on Twitter, but little by little, some Facebook algorithms–for which I did not found public details–evaluate who you are going to see more in your timeline, certainly by taking in consideration the amount of posts you ‘liked’ or commented from each contact, and more simply by hiding the posts of those you chooses to hide. A conclusion would be that after a while of ‘liking’ and ‘hiding’ you would see only your affinity group on your Facebook timeline, simplistic I agree, but enough for me to break the myth pretending that facebook is making closer links between different views.
Other aspect of graph-theory-inspired vision consists in looking at at a facebook member in a flat graph instead of putting his friends in a wheel, and then we can distinguish to examples of profiles:
• Person with high degree, a good model for outstanding Bloggers accounts for example. They are often followed by some thousands of people getting information from them.
• Single person, low degree high connectivity, can represent people using facebook to get and forward some links and news related to some of their beliefs or causes
A mixture between these two kind of actors would then look like this:
It would be good to have a vision of how would the CC-A and CC-B components introduced in the ‘Friend Wheel’ approach look like in this flat graph representation, but without internal Facebook data or equivalent mapping, any trial would be even more speculative than what I tried in the lines bellow. These three graphs are not as representative of a real case as the friend wheel bellow, but they give a starting point for another model.
V) Quick words out of topic
1. Self censure the worst enemy of freedom of speech:
As I have not contributed in December Forum, I would like to put a word about freedom of expression, just to say that as citizen media are harder to censure than classic ones, the only way to profit from the potential of freedom of speech using citizen media is to force the classical boundaries’ ourselves. Freedom of speech fears more from self-censure than from regimes’ censure!
2. Moroccan “Bloggers association”:
The people behind this association (not yet recognized) are doing a good job regarding Bloggers freedom of expression. But the name they are planning to give for their association is obviously absurd: a Blogger is by nature a free electron, as said in another article, we have not asked for anyone’s permission before opening a blog, and any attempt to represent bloggers has no sense.
I would support them if their project keeps being providing help to bloggers (what they are already doing well), but not if they pretend to provide any representative role for bloggers, which makes me ask them to kindly change the name of their association.
Other point, I would really like to have an explanation of how the number ‘80,000 bloggers’ was estimated by the association. Did they just fantasize some estimations as did our friend Larbi.org in his early days 😉
3. e-PAM(c), 50 cents party?
Citizen media and other free web 2.0 tools are obviously giving opportunity to organizations that had not access to classic media to build –for free- their own communication. If Islamists like Al Adl are doing it quite good with their web site and their on line TV-channel, other groups seem to be not yet efficient in using the web 2.0. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) has, for example, an official web site that is less frequently updated than its Facebook group, which is not good because many Facebook users may fear of joining the AMDH group and making it appear in their profile, that make the AMDH reaching less people, or as said in IV orbiting in a narrow connected component, between AMDH sympathizer who are already convinced, instead of reaching new potential sympathizers.
The other case is the PAM, massively using its Facebook page to post all updates retrieved from newspapers about the party, this can seem absurd when we consider the facility this party has to get access to classic medias. The PAM is then taking benefit from the citizen media to behave like a Chinese fifty cents party?
We wonder then if citizen media, instead of bridging the gap, is making it larger?
(c): Authenticity and Modernity Party, founded by Fouad Ali El Himma, former secretary at the ministry of the interior.
4. Arabic Blogs – French Blogs
As said at IV for believes that does not meet on Facebook, Arabic blogs and French blogs seem to be disconnected from each other in the blogosphere, some prominent French bloggers do not know about some outstanding Arabic blogs, which gives them quite a superficial idea about the so-called Blogoma.
Some explain this duality of blogosphere by the duality of French-mission-schools/Arabic-public-schools; some go on with more clichéd explanations, thinking that it is a modernism/conservatism duality. I think this a very simplistic explanation, as very few French bloggers among the known ones come from French-mission schools. I personally don’t yet know a blogger trained in Lycée Descartes or Lycée Lyautey, and would give a partial explanation to the phenomenon more by the academic background of the blogger : after high school in Morocco, if you go to a technological or scientific program, French becomes your daily working and studying language (which is in my opinion an aberration), at the opposite, most human science courses are in Arabic. I am personally turning my blogging back into Arabic as I am getting used to writing again in Arabic, but seven years of daily academic use or French has made me write in French, more because it was easy for me at that time than because I wanted to reach Francophone readers.
PS : While writing this essay, the PAM has launched its new web site, looking quite professional compared to other party’s web sites -we can even join the party filing an on line application!-, may be the this was made by professionals instead of militants like for other party’s, but we can now say definitely that after being more present in classic medias, the PAM is mastering the alternative medias. Other political organisations should react by improving their on line face, instead of complaining about the PAM’s ease in reaching all the media.